New beneficial ownership register for BVI companies - a victory for transparency or a dangerous precedent? - Boodle Hatfield

Your lawyers since 1722

02 Oct 2020

New beneficial ownership register for BVI companies – a victory for transparency or a dangerous precedent?

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2 min read

The decision by the BVI government to create a publicly accessible register of company ownership predictably has been broadly welcomed. Like many offshore jurisdictions, the world's go-to destination for holding companies has found itself under pressure to become more transparent following the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers stories. Inevitably, it would also in time have come under further pressure from the most recent Fincen data leak.

The merits of a register are self-evident - more available information means (in theory) fewer places to hide for the people who want to hide. In that lies the fundamental dilemma of this new approach, too often lost in the simplicity of a good headline and a quick judgment - it makes no distinction between tax evaders, drug dealers or terrorists on the one hand and individuals who have acquired wealth by legitimate means on the other.

The risks highlighted by the BVI prime minister are very real - how many commentators consider the problem of making anyone's home address freely available on the internet (many BVI companies are used to hold UK residential property), let alone (specifically) a celebrity's afraid of a dangerous stalker or even a parliamentarian's who has children and whose views are not universally liked or even accepted? The prospect of assault or kidnapping is obviously the most serious, but identity theft and fraud are also significant concerns.

Ultimately, there are other, better ways to combat dirty money and many good personal or business imperatives for owning property through a company. Public discourse needs to move on from the idea that corporate structures (or, indeed, any structure where assets are not held directly by the ultimate beneficial owner) are inherently wrong. Those who are able to set up a (BVI) company should have a right to privacy in the same way as those who do not, who no doubt would be up in arms if data protection rules more generally were relaxed in a way that affected them.

a public register of beneficial ownership could be “disproportionate” in terms of information it made public

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